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Preparation and networking ensure success when working abroad

Stefan Sakurai, CEO of pharmaceutical company Leo Pharma in Japan, has lived and worked abroad for almost 20 years. The half Japanese-half Danish businessman has seen for himself the price that companies have paid for sending managers abroad unprepared. Read the tips for ensuring a successful overseas posting.
Leo Pharma’s country manager in Japan encourages Danish businesses to let employees who are new to working abroad start out in less important markets or by shadowing an experienced executive in a major market. Photo: Derek Ichiro Makishima.

Publiceret: 24.11.2016
Af Karen Witt Olsen mail

At 23, directly from his course at Copenhagen Business School (CBS) and with an unfinished undergraduate assignment in his suitcase, Stefan Sakurai was sent to Japan to set up a subsidiary for the Egmont Group.

“I was saved by the fact that I am half-Japanese, speak the language, understand the cultural and social codes and have grown up in a family of entrepreneurs. Otherwise, things would have gone badly wrong,” he says now – 19 years and four top executive posts in Japan later.

Stefan Sakurai is currently CEO of Leo Pharma in Japan which he has spent two years building up from a small development division into a fully functioning pharmaceutical company encompassing development, marketing and sales. The company in Japan has approx. 50 employees and, through a handful of partners, has achieved a turnover running into hundreds of millions.

See also: Danish executives lack global training

Nodding does not mean ‘yes’

One of the things he knew from the start was that the Japanese may sit and nod and say ‘yes’ to proposals and changes being presented at a partner or client meeting. But that does not signify agreement in the Danish sense of the word.

“When the Japanese nod and say yes at a meeting, the Danes think that the contract is in the bag. They have put in all their reservations and amendments – now all that is needed is a signature. But that is far from the case in Japan. ‘Yes’ means ‘yes, we will go home, think about it, look at the numbers, talk to our top management and get back to you in a couple of months’. Those are two very different ways of saying ‘yes’ and may derail a negotiation process completely,” he says.

See also: Get help with internationalisation from the Confederation of Danish Industry (in Danish)

Doing it alone is expensive

In his almost 20 years in Japan, Stefan Sakurai has seen many examples of Danes who have been sent out from their headquarters in Denmark largely without any appropriate preparation.

A major new survey also documents that Danish executives operating on the international stage are left to their own devices when it comes to learning the ropes abroad. The Global Leadership – Practice and Development Revisited report shows that executives do not feel that they are being offered development of skills that are vital to ensuring success in their global managerial roles.

“It is almost more a question of luck than design if things go well for an executive on his or her first posting. Three out of four times, the company either does not gain what it could have gained or things go more or less wrong. This is expensive both in terms of business and on a personal level,” he says.

See also: Global Leadership Academy


Leo Pharma’s CEO in Japan gives examples of what he calls ‘crash’n’burn’.

On a business level, the company risks missing out on orders, for example, and on a human level he has seen executives being posted to Japan who have changed their personalities, experienced marriage breakdown or been sacked.

“When things go wrong, the business in Denmark pays – in addition to the great human costs – a big bill for lost expenses on accommodation, international schools, moving out and back, lost earnings, employment tribunals and all that kind of thing,” he says.

Networks and ‘shadowing’

During his almost 20 years abroad, Stefan Sakurai has managed staff in all of the three categories described in the Global Leadership report.

He has managed Danish employees in Japan, managed Japanese employees in Japan and managed Japanese employees in the UK, the United States, Eastern Europe and India.

All three global leadership formats present their own unique challenges, but they all become much easier if managers learn to use networks.

“When people get posted abroad, you have the feeling that everyone invents the wheel again and again. Networking – both with others who have been posted to the same location from the parent company and other expats from other companies – helps to map the knowledge each person has and put it into play,” he says.

Leo Pharma’s country manager in Japan also encourages businesses to avoid sending people who have not been posted abroad previously to key positions in important, but difficult growth markets such as China and Brazil.

“Untested employees either need to start in less important markets or as junior managers shadowing a more experienced person in a major market. This ensures that they become familiar with the situation without being overwhelmed and that the company does not lose money, people and orders,” he says.

Business casual and please-go-home

Stefan Sakurai’s own contribution to global leadership has been to attempt to introduce Danish principles on dress code, working hours and holiday to Leo Pharma’s Japanese subsidiary.

As far as dress code was concerned, he started cautiously by introducing the concept of ‘Casual Friday’ when it was acceptable to leave the otherwise mandatory two-piece suit at home.

This has now been replaced by ‘business casual’ –professional, yet casual office attire – every day of the week if employees do not have external meetings scheduled.

“The hardest things has been to get working hours down to 50 hours. No one will leave before the boss so I only made headway when I started to go round every day at 6 pm and say goodbye to everyone,” he says.

Leo Pharma’s CEO in Japan has also introduced five weeks’ holiday as opposed to the usual one or two weeks. But he is still working on getting his Japanese employees to take those weeks off.

“Fewer hours and holiday give me extremely loyal employees. I believe that the opportunity to relax gives me employees who are able to add more value in the long run even though they work less on paper. But this all takes time to achieve and you have to proceed carefully and with respect for the culture you are working in,” says Stefan Sakurai. 

Four tips for global leaders

A summary of the results of the report can be encapsulated in four tips for businesses wanting to consolidate the skills of their global executives:

The first tip is to clarify to which of the three categories the executives belong. This generates reflection and a basis for discussion of skills and development requirements.

The second tip is that the executive who is to be equipped for his/her global role should discuss the skills required for that particular position with his/her superior.

The third tip is an extension of the second tip and is that the global executive should discuss how these skills are to be achieved in consultation with his/her superior and HR department.

The fourth and final tip is that the global executive, irrespective of the category to which he/she belongs, should find someone with global experience to use as a sounding board in order to ensure that lessons can be learnt from the situations and challenges faced by the executive.

See also: Expanded version of tips for global leaders

When people get posted abroad, you have the feeling that everyone invents the wheel again and again. Networking – both with others who have been posted to the same location from the parent company and other expats from other companies – helps to map the knowledge each person has and put it into play.
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Stefan Sakurai
CEO Leo Pharma i Japan since 2014
Former director at Oracle, Novo Nordisk, Hartman and Egmont in Japan
42 years old
Lives in Tokyo
Danish/Japaneese, raised in Denmark
Married, six children
PUBLISHED: 11/24/2016 LAST MODIFIED: 11/24/2016